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The Morning After, Part Ten: Washington

Some thoughts on the UCLA Bruins and how a football, like life, can take some crazy and unpredictable and sometimes soberingly tragic bounces.

On this play, the ball crossed the goal line by inches before coming loose - all the difference between 6 points and a turnover.
On this play, the ball crossed the goal line by inches before coming loose - all the difference between 6 points and a turnover.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Random bounces.

It's part of what makes it hard to be a Bruin fan.

In both life and football, things don't always make sense and can't always be predicted. That uncertainty may keep things exciting but can also make understanding those things difficult.

It was hard enough when the team was honestly bad, but it's not like some bit of success in the last couple years has magically made everything perfectly easy these days. For starters, simply getting to last night's game reached a new level of difficulty. I remember how bad it was fighting the LA traffic on the way home from work on any given weekday. But I can only imagine trying to get to the Arroyo Seco on a late Friday afternoon. That took a special kind of fortitude. Kudos to the nearly 70,000 fans who made the effort last night, and doubly to those who dressed in black like the team asked.

Of course, right now things are going pretty good for our football team. Lots of Bruin fans expected we'd be right around 8-2 at this point. Maybe one of the losses or wins we predicted were flipped, but most of us had this record or something close to it. The path to this point has been a bit harder to predict, as the team has had some real ups and downs in its performances. But as opposed to previous years where the Bruins would reliably play down to or below the level of their competition (and that included the 2011 Washington State or San Jose State level of competition) this year's team is doing enough to play just above the level of their competition. As a result, the performances aren't always dominating and they haven't always pretty, but like last night, they have usually been good enough.

But that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to be a Bruin fan.

And that's because football is a funny sport.

Not funny as in haha, but funny like weird and unpredictable and sometimes senseless.

Part of that is what you get when you have young guys who are really strong and fast and fearless running into each other at high speed. Now throw in an oblong leather ball with points on the end that doesn't always bounce the way you'd expect. It's even worse if the thing gets slippery, because then who really knows what is going to happen.

What happened last night is that in the beginning of the game, everything was randomly bouncing our way.

On UW's first series, the Huskies completed a pass for a first down that promptly got knocked loose and we fell on the fumble. Six plays later we had a touchdown. On their next possession they got two big runs and looked to have a third when the ball squirted into the air and landed in the waiting arms of our defensive lineman. Five plays later we had another touchdown. Then when it was our turn to fumble a few plays later, the ball somehow dribbled 15 yards in to the UW secondary to be smothered by one of our offensive linemen between three Husky defenders. And a few plays after that we had another fumble just inches after the ball had already crossed the goal line.

And when the loose balls weren't bouncing our way, the referees' flags were flying our way. Washington did its best UCLA impression by getting killer penalty after killer penalty. We weren't passing particularly well and we weren't holding on to the ball particularly well, but UW was doing everything worse. It kept our drives alive and we built a big lead early in the game, keyed by those early Husky fumbles.

But those fumbles involved some random hops, and the players themselves have sort of a Brownian nature to them that makes their location and interactions and collisions have a degree of randomness, too.

The problem is that when you keep dealing with randomness, things tend to balance out over time.

So when we look back at yesterday's game and we ask how we let a gift 20 point lead become a narrow and nervous 3 point game, we should remember that there are a lot of random bounces in a football game and odds are that those bounces are going to even out after a while.

Sure enough, that's just what happened. And when things stopped bouncing our way, it got pretty frustrating and nearly disheartening.

In that aspect, football mirrors life. There is not always any rhyme or reason why something bounces the way it does. Why one fumble lands in our hands while another one doesn't. Why something that has happened one way ends in a completely different manner another time. This is where the fun ends.

The news came out yesterday that when Nick Pasquale was hit by a car and killed, he was drunk. Really drunk. Sadly I can't say this is all that surprising. Trauma statistics show that when a young male dies in an auto-pedestrian accident, alcohol is involved by one party or both in about 50% of cases. So when a college student is out late on a weekend night and gets hit by a car and the driver isn't cited, you sort of have to figure the pedestrian was at least partly responsible for the accident somehow, and that alcohol might be involved. From my jaded view in the emergency room, we typically assume that, and we're typically right. What is actually more surprising to me is that this possibility wasn't discussed more after the accident. Truthfully, I simply didn't want to consider that aspect. I doubt any of us did.

I don't mean to tarnish the memory of an inspiring young Bruin. He is still and will always be just that that, an inspiration for what he meant to all who knew him. But the news is out there now and we need to address it. I am certain that the players knew about this already. His teammates would have asked questions and word would have gotten out from the people who were with Nick earlier that night. What we saw from the team, in the days and weeks after the tragedy, occurred with that knowledge and understanding. That means the emotions and tributes from Nick's coaches and teammates were genuine and not biased by false impressions or naiveté. Because of that, those emotions and tributes can never be diminished, and that justifies us all we thought of Nick as a person.

Where randomness comes into play is that Nick did something that probably many of us have done at one time or another and that is have too much to drink. How many of us have had too much to drink, and still stumbled home into the comfort of our own bed? What random set of events got us home safely but not Nick? And what did any of us do to increase or decrease the likelihood that random chance would have a say in our outcome? Who knows if Nick stumbled into the road, or tried to cross and misjudged the traffic, or whether his BAL even had anything to do with the accident at all. In the end, the result was the same. Knowing he was intoxicated doesn't make his death any less tragic, but it does alter the nature of the tragedy. It made his odds worse and increased the possibility that a random chance of fate bounced in the absolute worst way possible.

There isn't any clear definable reason why one fumble bounces back into our hands while another doesn't. And that's the point of all this. I am in no way trying to equate a play in a football game with the loss of a promising young life. There is no remote comparison between the significance of the two. But there is a parallel where maybe a football game can help teach us something more valuable about life. We should remember that once that oblong football is loose, it will bounce in crazy and unexpected and unpredictable ways. We should also remember that are some things that we can do to minimize those random senseless bounces in the first place. The solution is to take randomness as much as possible out of the equation.

For our Bruins, that means learning from our mistakes on the field. Our two fumbles let Washington back in the game last night. The lesson for the team today is don't fumble in the first place. Carry the ball high and tight. Keep it away from the defender. Cover it with two arms. Hold it all the way to the ground. Capitalize on the opponent's mistakes and don't give them back. Tilt the odds in our favor and make randomness an ally. Build up a lead, don't let it fade, and win going away.

For us, it means learning from the mistakes we see in the world, wherever and whatever they are. Don't make that decision that allows your fate to be more determined by random chance. Take the steps and make the choices that will tilt the odds of success in your favor. Don't fumble your opportunities. Once that ball is loose, you cannot predict which way it will go, and it is possible you will never get it back. And that's the lesson for all of us this morning.